Once called the passing-bell, or the soul-bell, the death-bell is still a modern fact in some parts of the country, being rung, according, to rules, on the death of a parishioner; there are knells for men, for women, and for children. Of course, bells are as old as creation--in China they date back to times beyond the Bible record. The point we have to settle is: why did the clergy ring the bell when a member of the congregation died? The first answer is: he rung it, or caused it to be rung, before the member died; that is, whilst praying for the dead and ringing for the dead were practically, identical, there was a preliminary ringing before death took place.
The following clause, in the "Advertisements for due Order, etc.," in the 7th year of Queen Elizabeth, is much to our purpose:--
"Item, that when anye Christian bodie is in passing, that the bell be tolled, and that the curate be speciallie called for to comforte the sicke person; and after the time of his passinge, to ringe no more but one short peale; and one before the buriall, and another short peale after the buriall."
But the ringing is not explained in this ancient order; it does no more than give the ecclesiastical rule. Grose goes deeper into the subject. "The passing-bell," he says, "was anciently rung for two purposes: one, to bespeak the prayers of all good Christians for a soul just departing; the other, to drive away the evil spirits who stood at the bed's foot and about the house, ready to seize their prey, or at least to molest and terrify the soul in its passage: but by the ringing of that bell (for Durandus informs us evil spirits are much afraid of bells) they were kept aloof; and the soul, like a hunted hare, gained the start, or had what is by sportsmen called law."
"Hence, perhaps, exclusive of the additional labour, was occasioned the high price demanded for tolling the greatest bell of the church; for, that being louder, the evil spirits must go farther off to be clear of its sound, by which the poor soul got so much more the start of them: besides, being heard farther off, it would likewise procure the dying man a greater number of prayers. This dislike of spirits to bells is mentioned in the Golden Legend by Wynkyn de Worde."
I fear we shall have to admit the accuracy of this statement about driving away the devils. Naturally we have long since discarded the superstition; and to-day the tolling is soft and subdued; but, as the question of origins is the one uppermost in this book, we have no option but to confess that the underlying idea was two-fold: to call the living Christian to prayer, and to scare the fiends who were waiting to pounce on a departing soul.